It seems a long time since Google adopted the 'don't be evil' mantra. Now recast as Alphabet the company has been taking a kicking this week in the UK and all over Europe for paying £130m in back tax on years of substantial earnings. Media commentators, politicians and regulators alike have queued up to denounce the company, as well as HMRC and the Treasury, for the paucity of this settlement.
This may seem uncomfortable for Google / Alphabet. But should it really care? After all, this is hardly the first time it has been the subject of criticism: its tax affairs have been a running sore for years, and it has been castigated by some for carrying videos by ISIS on YouTube. Yet the users keep coming. It makes absolutely colossal, and ever-growing, revenues, and there is no serious prospect that its users are about to flee elsewhere, horrified by the company's ethical stance.
That, then, calls into question whether businesses like Google, those sitting right at the top of the tree, need to worry about their corporate reputations. After all, it seems that whatever is said about the company it sails on, adding daily to its mountain of cash. Of course, I would argue strongly that it should be concerned.
My case is not that this controversy or that slip up will cause irreparable damage today, but rather that by continuing to court this bad publicity its corporate brand will corrode over time. The impact may not be seen straightaway in user numbers or revenue figures, but perhaps employees will shy away - no small issue for a business competing for scarce tech talent. Or regulators will start to reshape its business environment. Or advertisers will become more circumspect. Slowly, steadily, its hard-won reputation could trickle away, with major impacts on its bottom line.
So: time to shape up. Hiding behind legalistic flummery is not going to be enough. Google needs to be better than that, and to get back to basics: don't be evil, after all.Suggest a correction